For several years now -- ever since Mary-Jean Cowell has headed Washington University's dance program -- the St. Louis professional-dance season has begun with the Dance Close-Up recital. Until this year, it was literally close-up: The performers were Wash. U. dance faculty, and the university's relatively small dance studio was the venue. A portion of the audience could sit in chairs on a riser, but the rest took over some of the floor, and, of course, the dancers were right in the audience's lap. It was a warm, cheerful, funky event.
To usher in the millennium, however, this year's Dance Close-Up took place in Edison Theatre, and a whole bunch of Wash. U. dance alumni -- some recent graduates, some going rather far back -- presented two full evenings of dance. Quality varied, of course, from real sublimity (provided by Cecil Slaughter of the Wash. U. faculty on Saturday evening, once he got around to actually dancing) to the pits of simple incompetence and self-indulgence, but that happened only once. The 17 pieces provided glimpses of what young modern dancers from around the U.S. are up to and some ideas of what their elders (but not necessarily betters) are doing in the corners they are brightening.
Four of the evening's presentations were flat-out performance art. Two of them -- Michel Yang's "if I were a beauty queen ..." and Georgia Stephens' "I Have Wished to Be Queen" -- had little, if any, of what is commonly thought to be dance about them. The piece performed by the celebrated Robin Wilson, "Robin's Nest: Excerpts from Life at Large" -- choreographed for Wilson by Jessica Fogel -- had its share of dance motion but was more an autobiographical monologue. Cowell's "Research (Third Edition)," which is as amusing and thought-provoking on second view as on the first, even had a lectern and a lecturer, but that was part of the fun. The piece obviously involved Cowell's experiences but got further away from self than the others did.
Autobiography, presented with or without words, seemed to impel much of the evening. One understands this with young dancers, who have little experience outside their own lives on which to base their creations. Older, more experienced dancers may understand how difficult solo pure dance is, so adding words and dancing to a monologue may seem a way to keep things interesting. How many times music per se was there but rather irrelevant to the motion itself was also surprising -- we heard something at the same time we saw something, but making a connection between the two sensations seemed impossible. And the evening had lots of words. Sometimes words were all the dancers moved to.
But the pure dancing, even with a mix of mime, could be marvelous. Christine O'Neal, for instance, went en pointe to give us an all-too-brief taste of Peter Anatos' "Yes, Virginia, Another Piano Ballet," a superb, rightly celebrated parody of all the white ballets you've ever seen. Ann Berman's "Chicken Complex ... Complex Chicken" had not only a sprightly goofiness but some serious reflection on the pecking order and other matters, winningly laid out in dance. "Right Through You," choreographed by Angela Culbertson (an alumna) and David Marchant (faculty), looked, as it began, like a study of bodies in conflict as the two dancers first gently bumped into but quickly collided with one another. As the piece progressed, the conflict (and resultant air of hostility) resolved itself into an effort on the part of two individuals to deal with one another, and the final embrace, although expected, was also relief, an end to the tension resolved in relaxation.